byYork County Bar Association & Compiled by J. Ross McGinnis
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JUSTICE JEREMIAH SULLIVAN BLACK – August 1883
DIED - On the 19th inst., at 2:10 a.m., at Brockie, JEREMIAH S. BLACK, aged 73 years, 7 months and nine days.
A SKETCH OF HIS LIFE.
Jeremiah Sullivan Black was born in the glades of Somerset county, where his grandfather and father had lived, on the 10th of January, 1810. Although of Scotch- Irish descent on one side, a graft of Pennsylvania Dutch on the mother’s added a new and valuable fibre to the already vigorous and powerful plant. His father was a farmer, and his early years were, therefore, spent upon the virgin fields of the clearing among the glades, and the lessons of husbandry he there learned were never forgotten.
Jeremiah S. Black matured young. He was a man in mental and physical force while yet a boy in years. He graduated at the age of seventeen, and soon after began studying law, in Somerset, with Chauncey Forward, then a member of Congress. He was admitted to the bar and was Prosecuting Attorney of Somerset County be- fore he was of age. From the moment he began to study law it was observed that he had rightly chosen his profession. He soon developed astonishing legal qualities, and after his admission to practice he rose rapidly. His service as District Attorney was characterized by a vigorous and intelligent discharge of duty that soon cleared the county of criminals.
There was one incentive that kept him up in those trying days. His father had struggled hard to keep the parental estate in his own hands and it was no easy task to get the incumbrances off land not overly productive. It was the dream of young Black’s early life to free his father from debt, and while his practice almost over- whelmed him from the start it brought him money to do this, and this fact kept him to the work. In less than three years he paid off the mortgage on the home farm, lifted all the judgments and made his father comfortable.
When he was twenty-eight years of age he married Miss Mary Forward, his preceptor’s daughter, who has shared all the struggles and triumphs of her husband’s eventful and useful life.
While Mr. Black’s early life was crowded with honors, it was not until he be- came a Judge that he began to make his mark upon the history of the State.
In 1842, Governor Porter appointed him President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for the circuit composed of the counties of Franklin, Somerset, Bedford, Blair and Fulton. He was made Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State in 1851 by drawing the short term of three years, after having been chosen upon the ticket with Lewis, Gibson, Lowery and Coulter, under the new constitutional provision, making the Judges elective. Years before he became Supreme Judge his fame had spread beyond the limits of his district. In 1854 he was re-elected to the Supreme Bench by a large majority, even though the wave of Know-Nothingism swept nearly all the Democrats off the political deck. After he had served two of the fifteen years for which he was re-elected as Chief Justice, he was called to Mr. Buchanan’s Cabinet as Attorney General.
The first three years of his service as Cabinet Minister served only to lay the foundation for the graver duties of the fourth. From the moment he entered upon his duties as Attorney-General he laid a strong hand, not only upon the duties of his office but upon the whole Administration, of which he was the legal adviser. His long acquaintance with the moods and methods of the President, and his influence with him was often called into requisition by the other Cabinet Ministers in approaching him upon matters of import, the discussion of which demanded more time and greater quiet than was often given save to one who had at all times had access to, and the ready ear of the Executive.
Just before Judge Black’s Cabinet service ended, Mr. Buchanan nominated him against his wish and request, for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. His nomination was never acted upon by the Republican Senate and Mr. Lincoln named Judge Swayne, of Ohio.
He was then elected Reporter of the Supreme Court, but did not hold that office long, for practice began to crowd upon him.
After Judge Black’s service as Cabinet Minister he returned to Pennsylvania and selected for his future home a beautiful spot upon an eminence overlooking York and within sight of the sleepy waters of the Codorus Creek, upon which his forefathers had settled in the seventeenth century. His fame as a lawyer was so great, however, that many important cases followed him into the seclusion of his country home, and his life has been a busy one all these years and the demands for his services were greater than he cared to accept. He left public life poor, and returned to his native State to rebuild his fortune.
Within the past twenty years he has argued more important cases before the Supreme Court than almost any other attorney in the country. His greatest case, pecuniary, was doubtless the New Almeden Quicksilver Mining Company of California. The testimony in this case covered 8,000 printed pages and the opposing counsels’ briefs were 1,700 pages long. Reverdy Johnson, Chas. O’Connor and Judah P. Benjamin were the counsel on the other side, and R. B. Curtis and Caleb Cushing were at one time or another connected with him in the case. —He made the final argument and condensed the points of all this mass of testimony in an eight-hour speech, which is counted as the greatest legal effort of his life. He won the case, and received one of the largest fees ever paid an American lawyer. His arguments in the many cases involving the constitutionality of the Reconstruction acts are familiar history. —His great effort in the Milliken case, which secured a decision from the Supreme Court denying the right of a military commission to try a citizen for his life, is also well known. The late President Garfield was associated with him in this case. The Campbell will case and many other important cases were also in his hands. His legal work before the Electoral Commission, where he was one of the Democratic counsel, is of so recent date that extended mention of it is unnecessary.
York County Bar Association & Compiled by J. Ross McGinnis
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About the Book
A compelling series of insightful biographical sketches of the men and women of the York County Bar commencing eleven years before the start of the Civil War as recounted by contemporaries and colleagues. Candid, sincere, honest, and on occasion with a touch of comic relief, these memorial minutes are tributes to those who have made their rendezvous with mortality.
Found within these volumes is the venerable Jeremiah S. Black who walked the corridors of national recognition during the Civil War era; the urbane and brilliant Herbert B. Cohen who wielded substantial political power throughout the commonwealth and rose to become an associate justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court; the charismatic Harvey Gross whose superb advocacy in the third Hex trial and subsequent twenty-year tenure on the York County Orphans’ Court placed him in the forefront of the princes of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence.
This “callout” of the giants in no way diminishes the significance, commitment and integrity of the many other remarkable individuals who came after and counseled and inspired others to live honestly, to exercise compassion, to act with prudence and diligence, and above all else made their contribution to the vast and diverse panorama of our humanity.
Not a typical memoir or story, these memorial minutes constitute the defining epic of the York County Bar. More than history, more than recitals of character and personality, of delightful encounters and more somber content, they are about individuals remembered for the richness and power of their hopes, achievements and commitments to the timeless values of the life of the law.
About the Author
Compiled and forward by J. ROSS MCGINNIS. J. Ross McGinnis, attorney and author of “Trials of Hex,” was born in 1928 and was raised on a farm in southern York County. After graduating from Fawn Township Vocational High School in 1944, he attended York Collegiate Institute/York Junior College for one year. He then went to Princeton University, graduating in 1949
summa cum laude, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and awarded the Lawrence Hutton Prize in History, and was the co-recipient of the C.O. Jolene Prize in American Political History for his thesis on Henry Adams, the Sequence of the Democratic Force. He graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1952 and was given a direct commission in the U.S. Air Force. He became a staff judge advocate and, after two years, was discharged with the rank of Captain. Since 1954, he has been a practicing attorney in York County. He was President of the York County Bar, Moderator of Donegal Presbytery, and a life member of the Salvation Army. He is currently “of counsel” for the law firm of Stock and Leader in York, Pennsylvania.